Butter, margarine, ghee or vegan butter – which is healthier?

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Maybe for you it’s that ooey gooey butter beginning to melt on a hot piece of toast, the buttery creaminess of a cinnamon-sugar sweet potato, or the buttery flavor baked into your favorite muffins. Anyway, America loves butter — we love its alternatives, too.

I’m often asked by my customers whether butter or margarine is better for your health, and popular national brands seem to be fueling that interest with new versions of ghee and plant-based, non-dairy spreads. Let’s break the confusion and dive into butter, margarine, ghee, and vegan butter specifics to show us which butter spread to toss in our shopping cart.

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The beloved original, butter has been a household name for centuries. This traditional, tasty, semi-solid milk-based fat is made by stirring milk or cream and is often sold in sticks. Like many other oils, butter is high in fat and calories, coming in at almost 12 grams of total fat and 102 calories per tablespoon. Can have it too over 80 grams of sodium per tablespoon when salted. Unfortunately, butter contains 7 grams of saturated fat, which is 35% of the daily value of saturated fat. The type of saturated fat in butter is predominant palmitic acidwhich tends to raise both total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and has been linked to an increase risk of heart disease. Keep in mind that when butter is served in small balls or individual squares known as “patches,” these can be as small as about a teaspoon and as large as 2 tablespoons.

Mother's Choice margarine container display in supermarket
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Often sold on the shelf with butter and often found in a tub, margarine is sometimes sold in stick form and does not contain dairy as the first ingredient. It is suggested that using tub margarine instead of stick butter or margarine decreases the risk of myocardial infarction — or heart attack. Instead, a mix of water and various vegetable oils takes the lead, including palm, palm kernel, and soybean, and sometimes canola, coconut, and olive oils. In the past, margarine was a source of whole or partial “hydrogenatedFats that result from the hydrogenation manufacturing process, which involves adding hydrogen to an unsaturated compound. This made the margarine firmer at room temperature. However, hydrogenating oils is associated with less favorable health consequences. Fortunately Hydrogenation is rarely observed in margarine products currently on the market.

Fat and calories are variable in margarines, ranging from about 35 calories with 4 grams total fat and 1 gram saturated fat per tablespoon to 70 calories with 8 grams total fat and 2.5 grams saturated fat per tablespoon. Margarine also comes in very low-calorie sprays that add just enough squirt to lightly top fresh popcorn, glaze roasted vegetables, or spritz a pan for low-to-medium heat cooking.

ghee
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Ghee, a clarified butter, is popular in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines. Clarified butter is made by separating milk solids from butter and then retaining only the remaining liquid butterfat. This creates a tastier and longer-lasting butter product with a higher smoke point of around 375 degrees or more for high-heat cooking techniques like sautéing, searing, or even frying.

While ghee can be great for food prep and flavor preferences, it does even better when it comes to fat, saturated fat, and more calories per tablespoon at about 14 grams, 10 grams, and 120 calories, respectively. So one tablespoon – the size of your thumb from knuckle to tip – is 50% of the recommended daily value for saturated fat.

vegan butter
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It’s exciting to see the world of plant-based foods expanding into so many corners of the grocery store, offering options for omnivores and herbivores alike. Vegan butter isn’t such a foreign concept this side of 2014 – if “Veganuary‘ was formed amid an apparent shift in veganism towards the mainstream. Today, many brands use the word vegan to gain appeal on the shelf.

Vegan butters are available in the market in roughly equal parts as a cup or spread and may contain coconut, soy, palm, canola, flax or olive oil as the main ingredients. Many vegan butters also tend to add small amounts of protein from cashews, oats, broad beans, or pea protein to their recipe. Additionally, vegan butters range anywhere from 80 calories, 8 grams total fat, and 4 grams saturated fat to about 100 calories, 11 grams total fat, and 5 grams saturated fat per tablespoon.

The key differentiator in butter spreads is the number of calories, the amount of fat, and the type of fat present—and compared to butter, margarine, and vegan butter, ghee scores highest in all three. Conversely, a carefully selected margarine may contain the least of all three.

Choose a margarine whose key ingredients are water and olive oil, avocado oil, flaxseed oil, and/or canola oil for the best butter spread ingredient list for your health. A margarine with these key ingredients provides the ideal type of fat to support heart health and is likely lower in fat and calories to aid in weight management. Some of the healthiest margarine products to look at that fit these criteria are Smart Balance Buttery Spread with Extra Virgin Olive Oil Tub, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! Spray or Earth Balance Organic Buttery Spread Tub.

Molly Hembree, MS, RD, LD

Molly Hembree, MS, RD, LD, is a Registered Nutritionist. Read more about Molly

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